International Conventions on Transnational Nuclear Emergencies

Peter Hong
March 21, 2012

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2012

International standards on nuclear and radiological emergencies are codified primarily in two areas: international conventions agreed to through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and liability provisions in bilateral nuclear contracts.

IAEA Accident Conventions

Emergency conventions through the IAEA are legal instruments, but are binding only to the extent of each party's willingness to comply. Two conventions in particular constitute the major agreements on nuclear emergencies. The Convention on Early Warning of a Nuclear Accident is an agreement for states experiencing a nuclear emergency to notify other states potentially affected by the radiological consequences. The convention cites the institutions in states party to the convention responsible for receiving and sending notifications of radiological consequences. [1]

The Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency describes the IAEA's role in facilitating emergency nuclear assistance. States are allowed to assist any other state in an emergency through bilateral means. [1] The US, in the case of Fukushima, deployed a variety of experts to assist with accident mitigation. The convention is not meant to supersede this authority. Instead, the convention describes how the IAEA can coordinate the efforts of a large number of states. The binding provisions apply only to the limit of the IAEA's involvement in coordinating assistance efforts. [1]

Liability Conventions

The specific details of nuclear accident liability are determined through both international conventions and national-level policy. International conventions, primarily through the IAEA, set general principles on liability provisions. These include conventions such as the IAEA Vienna Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage and the IAEA Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage. These conventions set general principles on liability, including minimum and some maximum caps on compensation. While the conventions vary, the minimum liability compensation clauses are in the hundreds of millions of dollars range. [2] Recently, some conventions have removed the limit on maximum liability and placed a greater liability responsibility on the insurance required under these conventions.

National policy is an important component of liability that can, at times, supersede conventions. The majority of nuclear power plant construction and nuclear fuel production are run through commercial, though sometimes state-owned, entities. As a result, agreements to purchase nuclear fuel or power plants are often subject to bilateral agreements on liability provisions. These agreements often limit liability. In nuclear supply agreements, liability provisions are especially controversial. The hailed 2005 US-India nuclear deal is today only partially implemented as a result of liability controversy. [3]


Liability and nuclear emergency provisions will in the future become more controversial in international and bilateral conventions. While Fukushima tempered the interest in nuclear energy, many states continue to pursue nuclear energy. [4] Fukushima showed the dangers of a nuclear and radiological emergency. As a result, international and national liability conventions will become more controversial. In the future, these conventions will likely broaden the definition of "nuclear damage" and increase the minimum limits on nuclear liability.

© Peter Hong. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency," International Atomic Energy Agency INFCIRC/336, November 1986.

[2] "Protocol to Amend the Vienna Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage," International Atomic Energy Agency, INFCIRC/566, July 1998.

[3] J. Yardley, "India Passes Nuclear Deal," New York Times, 30 Aug 10.

[4] F. Dahl, "IAEA Still Sees 'Significant' Nuclear Energy Growth," Reuters, 11 Sep 11.